She wanted a change of scenery. Somewhere with a little more history and a bit of a reputation. A place known for great food and great wine. A city that liked – no, loved – its entertainment on the racy side.
Where she could walk into a hotel and have a cup of coffee. More on that later.
So, in 1925 at the age of 19, the woman born Freda Josephine McDonald and now known as Josephine Baker booked passage and sailed to France where she became one of the most loved, revered and talked-about entertainers in the world.
A one-woman show, Josephine (April 28-29 in the Jaeb Theater) explores the fantastic but true stories that have kept Baker a figure of fascination almost 50 years since her last performance and almost 100 years since she opened in Paris.
Baker was thrilled to be rid of the “WHITES ONLY/COLORED ONLY” prevalent in so much of the U.S. But even the enlightened French could hold stereotypical views of blacks. One of those was a belief that blacks were somehow more “primitive” than other races.
There was nothing particularly primitive about Josephine Baker, but she knew an opportunity when she saw it.
Her danse savauge (savage dance), performed in little more than a skirt made of rubber bananas, played up those jungle cliches to such an extreme that she destroyed them in the process. Frenzied, comical and undeniably sexy, Baker gave the audience what it wanted but with a knowing look that showed she was in on the joke.
Baker posing in the iconic banana outfit.
The dance also expressed the freedom Baker felt in Paris, where she could enter any boutique, café or hotel she wished.
She became a worldwide celebrity who traveled and performed extensively throughout Europe.
But when she’d return to the U.S. it was sadly like she never left. Segregation was still the rule, even where it wasn’t the law.
Although Baker had become a French citizen in 1937, she was passionately involved with the U.S. civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. At the 1963 March on Washington, Baker spoke from her experience:
“I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”
Baker (left) at the March on Washington. Click the above photo to read Baker’s full speech.
Her outspokenness drew the expected murmurs of Communist sympathies, but Baker was far too loyal to her libertè-loving adopted home.
During World War II, Baker used her celebrity as a cover to ingratiate herself with anyone who might have information beneficial to the French resistance. For this, Baker was awarded the Croix de guerre and the Medal of the French Resistance with Rosette, and de Gaulle named her a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur, the country’s highest decoration.
Baker had her flaws. Her intentions for her Rainbow Tribe – a dozen adopted children of different races and nationalities – may have been sincere, but charging admission to watch them co-exist peacefully turned family into a publicity stunt. She banished one adopted son from the tribe for being gay, particularly galling when Baker supposedly enjoyed liaisons with both women and men.
Baker (center) posing with her Rainbow Tribe of adopted children.
But at a time when female and minority voices were shushed or hushed, Josephine Baker made the world listen to, pay attention to and – yes, Aretha! – respect a black woman. Here’s the rest of that March on Washington quote:
And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.